To mark International Women’s Day, our Research Assistant, Rachel Burden, takes the opportunity to discuss some of the gender inequality issues in science and celebrate women who have made a big difference to breast cancer research.

Thursday 5 March 2015      Research blog
Is breast cancer a man’s world?

There has recently been a big push to persuade more women to take up careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). But there are still issues with gender biases that may be putting women off.

Inequality for women in science

Gender inequalities, well recognised in business and sporting careers, are also prevalent in the STEM sector. It seems that the further along the career path you look, the fewer women there are to be found.

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 55% of Bachelors students in the UK are female. However, this proportion decreases to 47% at doctorate level and only 38% at researcher level. Furthermore, women account for only 13% of employees in STEM jobs (covering academia, private and public sectors).

The institutes where we support research, such as the Institute of Cancer Research, do a good job of supporting women in research. Currently we fund 116 scientists, across five institutes, of which 56% are female (Editor's note 2016: correct at time of publication - March 2015)

However, the decline in women holding top posts is still present.  In the top research job such as team or group leaders, only 29% are female. These stats are clearly very worrying, so why is it happening?

Career breaks

A successful scientific career is often based on publication and scientific output over time, which actively discriminates against career breaks. So a major challenge for some women who choose to start a family during their research career can be returning to the lab after taking time out to raise children. Scientific fields, such as breast cancer research, progress so quickly that it can be difficult to stay in the loop after a break.

There’s also the more troubling possibility that some scientists may choose not to hire women because they fear they will leave to have children. This could put women off staying in science as they feel they would have to sacrifice their career in order to bring up a family.

But is such a forward-thinking field really beset by such old-fashioned attitudes?

Prejudice from peers

Unfortunately, evidence suggests that our sector may harbour an innate gender bias.

In 2012, Corinne Moss-Racusin and colleagues published results from a rather sobering study. In this study they had two sets of jobs applications that were identical, apart from having either a male or female name on them. The applications were sent to a variety of top scientists who were asked to rate them on skills and employability for a lab manager role.

The applications for the male students were on average rated higher for competency, employability and willingness to mentor students. The employer was also, on average, willing to offer the "male" applicants a $4,000 higher salary. The authors of the study suggest this discrepancy could be due to innate biases within the science faculty, which views men as more competent and women as more warm and likeable.

Women on top

We have all heard of the top men in science (e.g. Einstein, Darwin, Hawkings) who have made massive contributions to their respective field, but we never seem to hear as much about the women. Rosalind Franklin, for example, was a major contributor to the discovery of the structure of DNA but people only tend to associate Watson and Crick with that accolade.

Yet there are many female role-models to be found in science, and many within the breast cancer research field. One of the biggest impact discoveries to date – the discovery of BRCA1 – is attributed to Professor Mary-Claire King. This discovery has enabled at risk women to take preventative measures, saving thousands of lives.

Dr Rose Frisch carried out population studies mainly focusing on the link between fertility and physical activity. In her studies she found that non-athletes were far more likely to get breast cancer than athletes. This paved the way for studies looking into linking obesity and breast cancer and how best to prevent it.

Professor Clare Isacke was the interim Director at the Breakthrough Toby Robins Breast Cancer Research Centre from 2010 to 2013 (Editor's note 2016: now the Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre). Clare led a research institute of nine separate teams and over 100 scientists for the years she was in charge, helping to drive forward breast cancer research. 

Clare also heads up the Molecular Cell Biology research lab within the Centre, where they are making huge progress in finding ways to prevent breast cancer spreading to other parts of the body.

It’s clear that women have plenty to give to this vital field. It’s also clear that more should be done to make sure top female scientists aren’t the exception, but the norm.

What’s being done to combat gender inequality?

The Athena SWAN award is a national scheme, which aims to raise awareness of gender inequality, and the need for extra support for women in science.  Research institutes supporting the values of Athena SWAN receive an award based on evidence of their commitment to the programme. Breakthrough are pleased to know that all the institutions where we fund research have received bronze awards for their commitment to recruit, retain and promote women in science in higher education.

The Institute of Cancer Research, which houses our Research Centre, is currently in the process of applying for the silver award. This will be awarded on the basis that they can demonstrate measures have been taken to create a supportive work environment, provide more career support and remove unnecessary barriers to career progression for women.

There are also organisations offering support for people taking career breaks. The Daphne Jackson Trust, for example, supports men and women who have left science to have a career break for over 2 years and helps them return to a career in science.

International Women’s Day is a great way to raise awareness of what is being done to promote equality, and to encourage other institutions to support women in science. Raising awareness is the first step to creating a society whereby women believe that a STEM career is possible and, are judged on their merits, rather than their gender.

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About the author


Rachel Burden is a Research Grants Assistant at Breast Cancer Now. She has a Masters in biology.